On Self-indulgence

Updated: May 17

Words by Dan Caldwell - @d__caldwell

Main image is of Emerson, Lake & Palmer

There is no purer form of art than that made solely to satisfy its creator(s). Thus, to criticise any artwork as being self-indulgent, or worse, too self-indulgent, shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of creativity by the accuser. Indeed, the very act of creation is self-indulgent. The artist is indulging an impulse, thereby indulging the self. And just as the act of creation is self-indulgent, so too is the act of reading, listening, or watching; as the reader, listener, or watcher is indulging themself. How then can self-indulgence be used as a criticism for a work of art? It seems almost unavoidable in all forms of creation. It is not solely reserved for the Finnegans Wakes of this world. The artist does not always have to soar into the loftier, more complex and challenging side of their creative desires to suffer this accusation. To enter the current century, a band (who by no means are accessing the complexity of the prior example) that are often accused of self-indulgence, are Black Midi. With their extended onstage jams being a divisive element (not factoring in Greep’s polarising vocals) on whether people either love or hate them. In music, song length is often subject to the nonsense critique of being too self-indulgent. Have these people not yet realised that they can simply not listen to it? If you do not enjoy a book, put it down. Simply stop indulging yourself and indulge yourself in something else that you like or understand. The artist does not need to cater to your specific likes or dislikes. Perhaps you are better suited to a formulaic, crowd-pleasing system such as pop music or superhero films. Now, Black Midi are not a band I enjoy, but that is simply a matter of taste. And is that not what all this comes down to? Something is not to someone’s taste, and they either lack the analytical skill or vocabulary to express why they dislike it and lean on the all too easy, over-used, and fundamentally incorrect reasoning as to why they dislike something. Is it not enough to simply say one does not like something? You owe it to no one to like their art, just as you owe it to no one to dislike their art.

I don’t want to err too far into the realm of saying that people who make these accusations against artists do not understand the art. Obviously this is an unavoidable aspect of why certain people make such criticisms, however, there are certain things that require education, or life experiences to understand that some people simply have not been through - be it socio-economic reasons, or lack of experience. Whilst those people who make such accusations are in the wrong, they may not have been trained in Latin, or suffered from anorexia, to grasp the nuance of the piece they dislike. This does not validate their criticism; it is simply an attempt to explain why someone may make the criticism. We can also not avoid the fact that a lot of criticism stems from societally ingrained prejudices. Because just as with all art forms, the traditional idea of the creator was a man - the straighter and whiter the better. The notion of people speaking out of place, out of their societally accepted role, indeed, even just speaking as a minority, subjects the speaker or creator to the criticism of being too self-indulgent. You must fit the accepted framework to somehow self-indulge oneself by creating, whilst avoiding the criticism of being self-indulgent. To delve further into this would require a much longer and heavily cited essay, and it would be much better to come from the mouth of someone in one of those marginalised groups so it could be from experience rather than observation. Sadly, an awful lot of people who use self-indulgence as a form of criticism, or reasoning for disliking something, are artists themselves. How unfulfilled does someone have to be by their own work to accuse another of being self-indulgent? Or how insecure in their own grasp of their chosen medium must they be to make such accusations? One of the great joys of creation is playing with the format and experimenting with it. Some of the most defining works in all forms of creativity are those that push the format to its extremes, be it minimal or maximal. Samuel Beckett is often regarded as one of the great writers in human history. He destroyed the traditional notions of what a novel could be, by paring language down to its essentials and showing us its failures in a somewhat more accessible format than the dense philosophy of Wittgenstein and his Tractatus. Yet he is so often accused of excessive self-indulgence. Which leads me to my next question. Where is the line drawn between something being an acceptable level of self-indulgence, or too self-indulgent?

Still from 'Springtime' by Dutch artist Jeroen Eisinga

It would seem that this line exists on the precipice of something being widely accessible, and something challenging the notion of what the medium is widely accepted to be. Must a novel follow a narrative structure to be a good novel? Must a song utilise the verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, format to be a good song, or indeed simply, a song? Again, it seems to come back to playing with the format, something that often times can only be done when someone has grasped the traditional nature of their format and can now experiment. Though I do not wish to whitewash outsider artists who by their very nature and personality approach their artwork from a non-structural or non-traditionalist way simply by being who they are. You do not have to have read the entire western canon to reshape the western novel (geography, not cowboys). When those consuming the art feel that their parameters for what is acceptable in the medium they are currently indulging in have been breached, they say that the artist is simply too self-indulgent, or worse, a bad artist. But in a world of seven billion people, what is good, what is bad? There can simply be no solid definition on a matter of taste. And then, all of this fails to counter in cultural background. A Thai Molam song may not appeal to an Ed Sheeran fan, just as an Ed Sheeran song may not appeal to a Mongolian Throat singer. When your mum made a meal you disliked because she was trying something new, did you accuse her of being too self-indulgent? No. You simply struggled through the meal, or depending on your character, berated her cooking skills. This is all mere surface-level analysis of an issue endemic to all forms of creativity. I have not touched on mathematics, architecture, landscape gardening, or any of the multitude of creative formats that exist. I cannot deny that this essay is anything more than an act of self-indulgence. I had an idea; I saw it through to its end. And of course, you, by reading this, are indulging yourself. But if this were to grow from an essay of a thousand words to a thesis of thirty thousand words, would that be too self-indulgent? And would those reading it fall victim to mine own, or their own self-indulgence?